Portugal has been on my travel wish list for several years. There was just something about the rich history, clay-tiled roofed buildings, inviting coastal villages, and the beautiful scenery that pulled on my heartstrings. While Portugal doesn’t have the glitz and glamour of other well-known European countries, it outshines the larger and more visited European countries with friendly locals, beautiful scenery, and a welcoming sense of belonging. Visiting Portugal was a dream come true, and my expectations of this wonderful country were exceeded!
Portugal is located in Western Europe bordered by Spain and the Atlantic Ocean. Portugal is roughly the size of the state of Indiana, with Lisboa (Lisbon) being its capital and most populated city. With charming clay-tiled roofed buildings, cobblestone and mosaic streets and sidewalks, friendly locals, and breezes from the Rio Tejo (Tagus River) Lisboa captivates visitors. The best way to describe my visit to Lisbon, is by walking you through the three downtown neighborhoods-the Alfama, Baixa, and Bairro Alto, and the Belém district (west of downtown Lisbon). Lisbon is a walkable city, but with lots of hills, taking public transportation will save your feet and its fun taking the vintage trolleys around the city!
Public transportation in Lisbon is clean, efficient, and easily navigated. Whether taking the bus, metro, funicular, or trolley, visitors will safely arrive to their destination. To use Lisbon’s transit, visitors need either a Viva Viagem reloadable card which works on most public transport. The most frequent public transit we used in Lisbon were the metro and the trolleys (#12E, #15E, and #28E). While walking is my preferred method of exploring a new city, I like to use public transportation to get to further destinations and to save time and energy (at the end of a long day exploring, a seat on the metro was a welcomed luxury!).
Exploring Alfama Neighborhood:
While exploring the Alfama neighborhood, visitors are reminded of the historic relevance of this district, which dates back to the sixth century and was once occupied by the Visigoth’s and the Moors. This area is also one of the few places in Lisbon that survived the 1755 earthquake. Alfama has charming and tangled streets that one can easily get lost in while exploring this district. We started at the top of this hilly neighborhood and worked our way down toward the river. By starting at the top, you are treated to amazing views of Lisbon and the Tagus River! (You can walk uphill or take the #737 minibus or the #12E or #28E trolleys).
At the highest point in town, São Jorge Castle provides breathtaking views of Lisbon, the Tagus River, and the 25th of April Bridge. Dating back to the 11th century, the Moors built the castle to provide a refuge (for their army and elite society members) during siege (unlike other European castles, it was never meant to be a residence, just a fortress for protection). Stroll through the castle gates and take in the impressive views from the Miradouro de São Jorge (View Terrace) and walk along the upper decks of the castle towers and walls. Along with amazing views, several archaeological ruin sites have been preserved around the castle and artifacts are available to be viewed in an exhibition. We even caught a glimpse of a brightly colored peacock lounging in the castle gardens. Outside of the castle is a tiny village within the castle walls, which was once inhabited by nobles, but now cafés and shops line this neighborhood.
Leaving the castle town, stroll through the narrow streets and admire houses that have been present since the Middle Ages! You will find elderly gentleman looking out their windows, women hanging freshly washed laundry outside their windows, and kids playing in the narrow alleys. Take a moment to wave, smile, and say hello, they will return the favor! Walk toward the Largo Santa Luzia square (where trolleys and buses stop) to visit the Miradouro de Santa Luzia (a small terrace that provides panoramic views of the Alfama neighborhood and river).
After taking in the views, continue down further into the heart of Alfama district. Walking on a twisted and tangled medieval street plan, where you can get lost and eventually find yourself near the river. You’ll pass by several churches, local shops and markets, and experience an authentic Lisbon feel while marveling at buildings that have been lived-in for centuries!
Exploring Baixa Neighborhood:
The Baixa neighborhood is Lisbon’s historic downtown. After the earthquake of 1755, this district was rebuilt using a grid street plan and is easier to navigate for visitors (we never used public transportation in this district, Baixa is very walkable!) than the Alfama district. Baixa district has three squares (Comércio, Rossio, and Figueira), pedestrian-only streets (with plenty of cafés, restaurants, and shops to explore), and uniformly-built buildings (all the same height, number of floors, and similar facades) which line the streets of this vibrant district.
If you start your walk a little north of the Baixa neighborhood, a wonderful tree-lined street connects the old town with the newer upper town. Avenida de Liberdade was built in the 1880’s and was inspired by the Champs-Elysées in Paris, France. With mosaic sidewalks, large mature trees, and high end shops to browse, it is a pleasant mile-long downhill walk towards the Baixa district. The Praça dos Restauradores connects the Avenida de Liberdade with Rossio square. Praça dos Restauradores celebrates the restoration of Portuguese independence from Spain in 1640 (look for the obelisk centerpiece that signifies the independence).
Walking towards Rossio Square, you will pass the beautiful Rossio Station. Rossio Station was built in 1887, and has been exquisitely restored with detailed arched doorways, a Neo-Manueline façade, and wonderful detailed ceilings. Rossio Station is where visitors catch the train to Sintra, before hopping on the train, take a few minutes to appreciate the lovely train station architecture (unfortunately, none of my Rossio Station photos turned out well enough to share)! After marveling at Rossio Station, walk towards Rossio Square, which is Lisbon’s historic center. With an elongated oval-like shape, Rossio Square houses a column (center of the plaza) for King Pedro IV and two elaborate fountains. Surrounding Rossio Square is the Doña María II National Theater, cafés and restaurants, street vendors, and trinket shops. This bustling area was the perfect spot to eat lunch, enjoy a glass of Portuguese wine, and watch the lively streets of Lisbon.
Next to the Doña María II National Theater is the Largo de São Domingos. This square has a long history of being a gathering place with a bohemian vibe and African influences. In the 16th century, this was the site of Lisbon’s slave market and is now a central meeting spot for African immigrants from former Portuguese colonies (Angola, Mozambique, and Portuguese Guinea). It’s a great area to hear traditional African music and to watch small, energetic crowds share their views on certain subjects (a small, peaceful demonstration about racism was present when we walked through this square).
This square also houses the Church of São Domingos, which was once the center of the Inquisitions of the 1600’s. With several unfortunate catastrophes, such as the 1755 earthquake and the 1959 fire, amazingly, Church of São Domingos is still a working church! Reminders of past disasters, such as tumbled stone and black soot walls still remain on display in this resilient church.
Besides the church, Largo de São Domingos is popular for having the oldest ginjinha bar in Lisbon. This hole-in-the-wall bar serves up ginjinha, made from a sour cherry-like ginja berry. Ginja, has a taste similar to brandy, and can be served with or without liquor soaked berries. We weren’t given a choice, so we drank it like the locals, with berries floating on top of our sample cup (€1.50/sample). It was a fun experience to watch tourists and locals alike, bonding over a Portuguese liquor that was invented centuries ago by monks! (Uphill from the Largo de São Domingos, is Rua das Portas de Santo Antão, a restaurant lined street, referred to as Lisbon’s eating lane.)
Once leaving Largo de São Domingos, head towards the river for a nice stroll through the Baixa district. Watch as buses, cars, and trolleys all coexist on the busy Lisbon’s streets and look up to enjoy colorfully painted and tiled building facades. You will also pass by the Praca da Figueria (Fig Tree Square) and the Church of St. Nicola on the way to the pedestrian-only street, Rua Augusta. Rua Augusta is a lovely cobbled street with black and white mosaic patterns that are uniquely Portuguese.
After marveling at the cobblestone street, continue to walk through the giant arches of the Rua Augusta Arch (you can go to the top of the arch for €2.50, we opted not to do so). Crossing through the archway, the Praça do Comércio or Trade Square connects the Baixa district to the riverfront. This large square has one monument, of King José I, and provides unobstructed views of the Tagus River. With a few cafés, restaurants, and the Wines of Portugal Tasting Room surrounding the square, visitors can take a break from sight-seeing before walking the riverfront.
The riverfront once housed ships to sell or trade their goods. But now locals and visitors catch boats here, to cruise or to cross the Tagus River. We opted to rest along the river, taking in beautiful views of the river and the 25th of April Bridge, watching the birds fly overhead, and enjoying the clouds and sun above us. It was the perfect end to our stroll through the Baixa neighborhood!
Lisbon Part II, will walk you through the Bairro Alto and Belém districts! If you have any questions about anything you read, please let me know, or visit www.visitlisboa.com or www.visitportugal.com!
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